Netanyahu says Hamas offer aimed to ‘sabotage’ Rafah op as Israeli delegation in Cairo

PM says terror group’s proposal didn’t meet ‘vital demands,’ and negotiating team won’t back down on terms; Hamas warns offer is Israel’s ‘last chance’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in a video message from his office, May 7, 2024. (Screenshot/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in a video message from his office, May 7, 2024. (Screenshot/GPO)

The latest hostage deal proposal from Hamas was intended to sabotage Israel’s planned operation in Rafah, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted Tuesday, shortly after a low-level Israeli delegation arrived in Cairo to continue hostage deal talks and close the gap between Israel’s demands and the terms accepted by Hamas on Monday night.

“The Hamas proposal yesterday was intended to torpedo the entry of our forces into Rafah,” Netanyahu said in a video statement. “That did not happen.”

The purpose of the Rafah operation is to bring back the hostages and eliminate Hamas, he continued, adding that Israel “already proved in the previous hostage release [that] military pressure on Hamas is a precondition for the return of the hostages.”

Echoing Israeli officials who said on Monday that the terms of the deal had been altered and “softened” from those Israel had approved several days prior, rendering it unacceptable, Netanyahu emphasized that the Hamas offer was “very far from Israel’s vital demands.”

“Israel will not allow Hamas to restore its wicked rule in the Strip,” he insisted. “Israel will not allow it to rehabilitate its military capabilities in order to keep working toward our destruction. Israel cannot accept a proposal that endangers the safety of our citizens and the future of our country.”

The specifics set out by Hamas differ in numerous regards from the reported terms of what the United States hailed a week ago as an “extremely generous” Israeli offer.

While the three-phase deal put forward by Israel requires the release, in the first 42-day phase, of 33 living hostages — all of them women, children, elderly or sick — Hamas said it would release 33 hostages, alive or dead.

In addition, the Hamas proposal changes the timing of the hostage releases in the first phase — from three hostages every three days to three hostages every seven days.

It also removes the veto Israel demanded on the release of certain Palestinian security prisoners — which potentially means Hamas could secure the release of some of the most dangerous mass murderers and iconic terror chiefs very early on in the deal, before many hostages are freed.

Hamas also raised the number of security prisoners that would be freed in exchange for each hostage in the first phase.

The Hamas proposal also provides for the free movement of Gazans back to the north of the Strip without the security checks required by Israel to prevent Hamas gunmen from returning. It also changes some of the specifics on the withdrawal of Israeli troops.

Significantly, Hamas said on Monday night that it regards itself as having accepted terms for an end to the war, whereas both the Israeli-backed text and the Hamas response refer to restoring “sustainable calm.”

Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip outside the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In light of the altered proposal presented by Hamas, Netanyahu said he had instructed the negotiating team to “stand firmly” on Israel’s conditions for the release of the hostages and on its security demands.

Alongside the negotiations in Cairo, Israel will continue its military campaign, Netanyahu said, calling the capture of the Rafah crossing “a very important step” toward destroying Hamas’s remaining military and ruling capabilities.

While Hamas has insisted that it will not accept any deal that doesn’t include a complete end to the war in Gaza, Israel has said that it must operate in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, where it believes four of Hamas’s six remaining battalions are located, along with senior members of the terror group’s leadership and a significant number of hostages.

The heavily amended offer is Israel’s “last chance” to free its hostages, a senior Hamas official said on Tuesday as the terror group prepared to dispatch a delegation of its own to Cairo.

The official, who requested anonymity to discuss the negotiations, warned that “this will be the last chance for Netanyahu and the families of the Zionist prisoners to return their children.”

Of the 252 hostages seized by Hamas during the October 7 massacre in southern Israel, 128 are believed to remain in captivity in Gaza, less than 100 of them alive. The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed the deaths of 35 of those still held by Hamas, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops in Gaza.

In addition to the hostages taken on October 7, Hamas has also been holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who entered the Gaza Strip of their own accord around the same time, and are believed to suffer from mental illness.

Efforts to secure a deal for the release of the hostages were hampered by Israel’s refusal to dispatch a delegation to join the negotiations prior to Tuesday, an Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel, adding that Israel’s absence from talks over the weekend had led to it being out of the loop when Hamas agreed to an alternate proposal.

A sign calling for the release of Hamas-held hostages, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, May 7, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Mediators had hoped Israel would dispatch a delegation to Cairo while CIA chief Bill Burns was in town, but according to the Axios news site, Israeli officials had instead expected Burns to brief them regarding any developments that occurred.

This past weekend wasn’t the first time that Israel refused to send a negotiating team to meet with mediators in Cairo or Doha, the diplomat said, adding that this had slowed the negotiations.

While Israel has said it only sends negotiators when Hamas is showing genuine interest in reaching a compromise, the diplomat said Jerusalem’s policy was “politically motivated.”

He declined to elaborate, but didn’t deny the suggestion that Netanyahu has refused to dispatch negotiating teams due to pressure from far-right coalition partners who want him to take a tougher stance in the talks.

Other war cabinet members, including National Unity chairman Benny Gantz and his deputy Gadi Eisenkot, who serves as an observer in the war cabinet, have argued that Israel should always show willingness to hold talks, while sticking to guiding principles once the negotiating team is in the room.

In light of the IDF operation in Rafah and the heavy edits made to the hostage deal offered by Hamas, the US has determined that both sides are trying to gain leverage in negotiations, The New York Times reported on Tuesday.

The report quoted anonymous sources who indicated that in its proposal to Hamas in late April, Israel “virtually cut and pasted” language from an offer put forward by Hamas in March, in order to call the terror group’s bluff should it reject the deal.

The plan appeared to work, the Times reported, and Hamas’s rejection of the offer over the weekend “frustrated the intermediaries because it rejected some of the very language that it had previously proposed.”

The US negotiators publicly decried the Hamas position, and warned that talks would be seen as over if Hamas did not actually want a deal.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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